Response to Shlomo Avineri: Diaspora Jews Can and Should Have Their Say on Israel

Even if you believe that only citizens, who have both the rights and responsibilities of living in a sovereign, self-governing country, can actually make political decisions, that does not mitigate the right of interested parties and outside supporters to express their opinions.

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
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Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair

Israelis dont like it when Diaspora Jews criticize Israel. In a recent op-ed in Haaretz, the political scientist Professor Shlomo Avineri indicates his support for this classic paradigm of the Diaspora Jewish relationship with Israel as follows:

I would like to note that I'm not comfortable with a situation in which people who don't live in Israel and won't be bearing the possible repercussions of the policies they advocate give themselves license to intervene in the political process here. This applies to figures on the right as well as on the left. For all of Diaspora Jewry's affinity to Israel, the tough political decisions must be ours - and ours alone - to make, and it isn't fitting for non-citizens to have any part or parcel in those decisions.

That's the difference between citizenship, which entails responsibility, and support or sympathy. (Haaretz, May 10, 2010).

To my mind, Avineri makes three errors here. Firstly, he doesnt sufficiently differentiate between the making of political decisions and the forthright expressing of opinions.

Even if you believe that only citizens, who have both the rights and responsibilities of living in a sovereign, self-governing country, can actually make political decisions, that does not mitigate the right of interested parties and outside supporters to express their opinions.

One of the reasons that liberal American Jews have become so alienated from Israel (a fact that Avineri bemoans) is that they often feel silenced; feel that there is no place in communal discourse for a supportive but critical approach to Israel.

The second mistake Avineri makes is that he ignores the fact that many internal political decisions in Israel directly affect Diaspora Jews. If Israel is to be the representative of the Jewish public, as Avineri desires, then its policies on Jewishness must be formulated in collaboration with the Jewish world and not in opposition to it (and sometimes even in spite of it).

One can point to many obvious examples of Israeli policies that have been carried out without taking into account Diaspora Jewish opinion: the laws on conversion, on state non-recognition of non-orthodox marriages, and the despicable situation at the Kotel (Western Wall), which is rapidly turning Judaisms most ancient monument into one of the main forces for the disintegration of Jewish peoplehood.

While laws about Jewishness are the clearest cases where Diaspora Jewry should be allowed to (at the very least) express opinions, and, ideally, be involved in the decision-making process, Avineri might do well to consider other policy areas too.

He rejects the idea, for example, that Diaspora Jews should have anything to do with the fate of Jerusalem.

I would argue that the views of Diaspora Jews should be taken into consideration when contemplating Jerusalems future. The city has been a Jewish symbol for much longer than the State of Israel has existed.

It may be that many Israeli Jews can only conceive of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel, but for many Diaspora Jews, a much more powerful and Jewish vision of Jerusalem would be as a beacon for tolerance and co-existence, a city which we are proud to share with the other two monotheistic religions.

To many Diaspora Jews, the view that Jerusalem only belongs to me is at best childish (parents of two-year-olds will find the statement all too familiar), and at worst, against the spirit of Judaism. Israel may find that its policy on Jerusalem will alienate Diaspora Jews from the whole city, not just the Kotel.

Yes, tax laws and healthcare policy should be left to the Israeli voters to decide (although even here I would suggest that Diaspora Jews can offer us interesting ideas and new perspectives, if we would only let them).

Ultimately, though, the classic position espoused by Avineri leads to a vision of Israel as a Canaanite state (I refer here to the intellectual and artistic movement of the 1940s, which saw Israel as a Hebrew Middle Eastern state disconnected from the Jewish people and past).

I dont for a moment imagine that that is what Avineri really wants. But if we want the Jewish people to be connected to Israel, then Israel has to be connected to and considerate of the Jewish people.

And that leads us to Avineris third error. The position which demands that Diaspora Jews relationship with Israel must be one of docile support and sympathy has, educationally, run its course. It may have been a powerful educational rationale for Israel engagement in years gone by, but in the contemporary Jewish world, it is no longer able to offer meaningful motivation for many Diaspora Jews, especially liberal ones, to engage with Israel.

Meaningful education, no matter which subject area, requires students to think critically and evaluate. Denying Diaspora Jews of these kinds of educational experiences impedes, rather than promotes, Israel engagement.

Its true that Avineri does suggest a forum where Israeli leaders and Diaspora figures can engage in dialogue. But such a forum wont close the fissures unless Israelis radically rethink their attitude towards the Diaspora and its voice in the ongoing building of modern Israel.

Avineri is right when he says that something bad is happening in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Unfortunately, his approach will only make it worse.

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